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MARK OF A WINNER

Jankowski's play has been a big reason Heat made the playoffs and now look to win their opening-round series

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Mark Jankowski, in control.

Of his game. Of his progress. Of his future.

And maybe, just maybe, of this series.

"It's gonna be fun,'' he predicts on a lovely, 70-degree Fahrenheit day in Stockton, Calif. "Our first home playoff game. We're coming back with a split. 

"We're hoping for a big crowd. A loud crowd.

"It wasn't easy. We put ourselves in a position where we had to finish strong just to make the playoffs. Every game was critical.

"But that just makes us stronger now.

"We feel like we can survive in games. Nothing's too much for us."

A 6-4 conquest in Game 2 Sunday at the SAP Centre an hour-and-a-half's drive up the 1-680 South has Jankowski and his Stockton Heat all square in their best-of-five opening-round series against the San Jose Barracuda.

Game 3 goes Friday night.

Owing to the 2-2-1 format, the Heat is in prime position to eliminate on home ice a rival that finished a full 18 points ahead of them in the Pacific Division pecking order.

 "We're an eight-seed, they're a one-seed,'' reminds Stockton boss Ryan Huska. "So the pressure is on them to close us out. So we can play a bit … freer.

"I think our guys are a little bit more relaxed."

The Heat had left themselves no alternative but to pound down the homestretch a la Secretariat, 14-3-4, in order to reach the post-season at all, clinching in the second-last game of the season.

Characteristically, then, they shrugged off a 4-0 opening-game defeat to steal back home-ice advantage in this series.

At the epicentre of the uprising, a 22-year-old freshman centre.

It's been quite a year for Jankowski:

First NHL camp.

First NHL game.

First pro season.

Not only did he top the Heat in scoring over the regularly-allotted campaign - 27 goals, 56 points and a plus-14 in 68 starts - but his three-point turn (1G,2A) in San Jose on Sunday helped shift the tide in this series.

"What's been impressive about Mark,'' says Huska, "is the growth in his confidence level. He has the realization that he has to be one of our better guys every night. He not only accepts that, he welcomes it.

"Every night we've had to challenge him to be better, he's always answered our call."

Flames' assistant GM Brad Pascall has watched every one of Stockton's games this season, in person or on his computer.

"I just think his overall game has grown,'' Pascall critiques. "A couple examples. One is face-offs. Getting used to things he was kicking around the 40 percentile. Now he's one of our best face-off guys.

"Another is competitiveness. He exudes it. He takes challenges and does something about them. Face-offs is an example. He doesn't sleep at night until he improves in that area.

"He's a driven kid. He has that competitive edge to him."

Jankowski's partnership with the rock-'em, sock-'em Garnet Hathaway and slick Andrew Mangiapane has been a big reason for Stockton's push.

"Mark and Garnet are good defensively,'' explains Huska. "Hath brings a kind of recklessness to that line. Mangiapane's got the offensive flair. Jankowski's the kind of guy who's solid at both ends.

"They can all put the puck in and all go about it in different ways. Hathaway crashes the net, Mark's got some skill and Mangipane has that knack of finding open ice.

"They complement each other really well."

On Nov. 28, of course, Jankowski received a call-up by the big club for a game in Brooklyn against the NY Islanders. One night, just 10:18 of ice time, but a stack of crib notes compiled for future reference.

"That was huge for me,'' he says now. "They told me 'You've earned this', which meant a lot. Just the step up, playing against NHL players … it's the best league in the world for a reason.

"Then you get sent down. And it hurts. But that hurt gives you the fire in your stomach to get back there and stay there.

"I know it's only one game but I took a lot away from it."

In Huska's mind, the late push to the post-season has benefits beyond the here and now.

"It's been a blast. We've been in playoff mode for six weeks now. We had to fight and claw and scratch to get as many points as possible and it seems like every night's been do-or-die.

"I think that goes a long way into bringing some of your players along. It forces them to get themselves to a different level and we had to do that quite a bit earlier than anybody else.

"Mark's one of those players I spoke of.

"There's a lot of responsibility put on him. We try to play him against all the top players in a little bit of shutdown role but at the same time challenged him to be better than everybody he plays against offensively - not an easy thing to do for a young guy down the middle.

"Mark would, I'm sure, say he'd rather be in the NHL right now. But one of the benefits of him playing here all year is learning how to work for things, forcing himself to be good at both ends of the ice and fight for his opportunities.

"If he's going to find a way into (Calgary's) lineup next year those are all challenges he'll face."

Ah yes, next year. Jankowski, given his size, position and impressive rookie turn will be given a long, hard, dispassionate look when the Flames reconvene in September.

He's not oblivious to that fact.

"I think I can make an impact at the next level. Whether that happens or not is up to me. I know what I have to do this summer," he says.

"I need to get bigger, stronger, faster.

"But right now, my only focus is right now.

"We're a big team. We play a heavy game. That's what we have to do this weekend.

"We believe we can get on a roll here. 

"We believe we can win this series and we believe we can win the Calder Cup.

"That's all I'm thinking about."

 

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